The Nights are drawing in: that can only mean one thing

The Nights are drawing in: that can only mean one thing

Remembering Remembrance

Last week I was delivering drill sessions in Portsmouth schools. I was in the playground in the baking heat of an Indian Summer. In layers of wool and cotton I was beyond toasty warm. I was sweating buckets marching around playground suntraps.

Looking stern

Looking stern

It’s easy in such conditions to kid yourself that it’s still summer and not the last week of September. It’s easy to revel in the warmth of the moment and ignore the inevitable fact that the year is turning.

September. The turn of the seasons means one thing here at Past Participants: it’s time to start gearing up for November. It’s time to start gearing up for Remembrance.

It’s the best of times

I apologise for paraphrasing one of Portsmouth’s most famous sons.

I love Remembrance season. It’s a subject that really seems to connect with teachers and students alike. It’s a subject where I feel I really make an impact. It’s a subject that’s important.

It’s also the busiest time of the year because of all of that.

I shall spend most of November visiting the schools of Hampshire delivering Remembrance sessions. More often than not that also means delivering drill sessions in their playgrounds. The same playgrounds that, in September, were dappled in late summer sun are now blasted by a freezing wind. They really give an immersive feel to the whole Remembrance experience. It can also be really cold so the children are wrapped up against it while muggins is in the same kit that he was wearing back in September. It’s thick wool so it’s warm and, to a certain extent, waterproof but it’s not windproof.

I can live with that, it’s what I signed up for.

The stories we tell in our remembrance sessions are really powerful. Some are from the Great War discovering the experience of soldiers on the front line. Some are from the Second World War where we find out about the crews of Landing Craft as well as the soldiers on the beach.

It’s the worst of times

Not all of the stories turn out well for those concerned. That only makes them more powerful. Telling them properly and doing them justice means putting everything into it. It’s only fair.

Pte Andrew Turnbull RM

Pte Andrew Turnbull RM

Think about it for a moment. Every time I deliver a Remembrance session, I introduce the group to a person who, I know, isn’t going to make it to the end of the session. Every session, I put myself through the emotional wringer to make sure I’m doing it properly. Every single session. There’s no shortcut, no way of insulating myself from it: it’s got to be done properly.

What that means for me is that the season really takes its toll on me emotionally. It’s important and I don’t begrudge it but, by the end of it, I am pretty wrung out from going through that process so often.

Am I looking forward to it?

Of course I am.

The effect that the sessions have on students and teachers alike make all the hard work, the cold, the emotional challenges all worthwhile. The fact that students remember these people years after they’ve taken part tells me this is worth doing.

I get a huge reward out of teaching Remembrance and from feeling that I am making a small but positive difference to the world.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Uncategorised, 0 comments
Making the traumatic insignificant: the power of the Somme

Making the traumatic insignificant: the power of the Somme

July 1st marks one hundred years since the whistles blew on the offensive that would start the battle that would later become known as the Battle of the Somme.

This campaign has become indelibly etched on the consciousness of the country. The Somme has come to stand for the horrors of trench warfare, for the Sheer awfulness of the Western Front and for the First World War as a whole.

In fact, so large is the shadow of the Somme, you could be forgiven for believing it was the only thing that happened in the entire war.

Sadly, for all the unimaginable scale of the Somme and everything it entailed, this is not the case. Service personnel were in harm’s way and paying the ultimate price long before July 1st 1916 and long after November 18th.

In spite of banging the drum for widening consciousness of the war beyond the Somme, its shadow is just too big not to commemorate.

A single person losing their life is tragic enough, fifty-seven thousand casualties is beyond imagining.

Fifty-seven thousand men killed or injured.

In one day.

And then the campaign went on for four and a half months.

Adding to the clamour

Much has been said on the horror of the Somme. Writers, poets and commentators far more eloquent than I have created a huge canon of judgements, commentaries and moving tributes about the battle and its impact.

I will not muddy the waters.

Instead, as I have done before, I will clear the stage and move aside to let someone else have the spotlight. Allow me to introduce you to William Charles Brown RMLI.

William Charles Brown

William Brown Joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry in November 1914. In April 1915 he was given a sun hat shipped out for Gallipoli.

No words can describe it. The conditions were horrible, lack of water, disease, stench, heat and most horrible of all: the flies and lice!


He was a man who very quickly became used to the discomforts of the field. Then, on the second Sunday in July he was

Up to the line once more trench digging. I was carrying a pick…and I was hit by a shrapnel bullet through my right thumb, it didn’t break or remove it…


He was offered medical leave but chose to remain to look after an old friend who had contracted dysentery. Eventually the wound became infected and he was invalided to Egypt.

At hospital he was offered a medical discharge but thought he had recovered enough and opted instead to return to active service

Probably the biggest regret and mistake of my whole life.


He was instead sent to the Western Front to join the Royal Naval Division.


And we finished up on the Somme.

By Autumn 1916 he was in the Somme as a Vickers machine-gunner in the Royal Naval Division. He seems relatively sanguine about the conditions:

Autumn had set in and we had a lot of rain and the trenches and land had become a quagmire. To make matters worse it had turned bitterly cold. From now on we were invariably soaked to the skin and often up to our waist in mud and water. Its most amazing that anyone could possibly survive such conditions.


This is without the enemy even getting a mention.

His moment came with the Battle of Ancre, at the end of the Somme.

We took up our positions and waited for zero hour at 5.45am. The Res had mined …Jerry’s trenches and these mines were being sprung at zero…Bang on the dot up went the mines and every machine gun along the front opened up, the attack was under way.
From the brow of the hill…was a quagmire and unoccupied….I shared a shell hole with 2 or 3 mates. We had suffered pretty heavily by this time but the attack was going very well all along the line.
When we got the order to advance I heaved my gun up on to my shoulder and climbed out of the shell hole pulling myself up with my right hand. As I put my hand on the rim to get to the top I had a bullet through it. I stopped and looked at it; then had a good mutter as it didn’t look like enough to go back with yet it would be damned inconvenient to carry on with.


This seems bad enough but then he had a proper look at it:

The bullet had gone through my knuckles in front of my little finger and it appeared to have split my thumb.


Bear that in mind when he decided to carry on rather than getting it seen to. However pretty soon it seemed he had underestimated it.

…so I had another look at my hand. The two middle fingers were hanging down there was a gaping hole through the palm. I could have poke four fingers through, and instead of the thumb being split it was gone. And when I lifted it up for a better view the two fingers hung down the back of my wrist and a slab of meat flopped down the front of my wrist from where my thumb had been.


Ouch. So he carried out a little first aid on the wound.

I lifted the fingers back up and over into the palm, and slipped my fingers under the slab back over the stump and held it in place.


It was all up for him so he handed off his gun to a member of the Honourable Artillery Company called Beresford and set off for the field station. Just then a shell exploded right behind him.

When the smoke cleared both Beresford and the gun had vanished.


He then began a long and fruitless quest for a dressing station. When he eventually found one..

I poked my head round the entrance, saw a table and a form so I sat on the form and promptly passed out.


William Brown’s involvement in the offensive had lasted about two and a half hours.

The tale of his treatment and recovery is one for another day, but he lived until March 1971.

The numbers game

I know this is a graphic account but there is a reason. William Brown sustained a relatively minor injury. This graphic tale was repeated nearly half a million times over the course of the Somme. Half a million tales, all as bloody as this one. Half a million men, each of whom had to experience the kind of injury and pain that, thankfully, few of us have to face now.

When I think about the Somme, it’s not the numbers that get me. It’s the fact that even a single one is too tragic to bear. It’s too tragic and yet, in the scheme of the war, insignificant.

That’s the power of the Somme: to make something as traumatic as this insignificant.


Posted by Past Participants Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments
Remembering Travis

Remembering Travis

Travis Who?

Travis were a band who were massive in Glasgow when I was living there in about 1999. They were everywhere for about two years (including a famous acoustic version of Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time which is well worth a watch), and then they dropped below everybody’s (including my) radar.

According to Wikipedia, they formed in 1990 in Lenzie (since made famous by the excellent Bags Fags and Mags, but I digress), they went through the obligatory “years in the wilderness” before making it big. They are also, if Wikipedia is to be believed, still going.

Yes, but why?

For those of who were not huge Travis fans, they had approximately two hits (to be fair they probably had more but I’ve forgotten).

The first was Driftwood, but that’s not why I remembered them.

Yesterday I was at the Gilbert White Field Study Centre again for a day of River Studies. Sadly, the weather forecast was “a little damp” to say the least. From the moment we left the centre to the moment we get back at the end of the day it rained solidly. It was never properly hammering it down, but it never stopped, not for a moment.

There was even a lovely moment when I realised that we were above the cloud base when on top of the hanger. It was great.

Fortunately, we’d come prepared: I was carrying a bag of spare waterproofs, spare gloves and hand warmers. Everyone had a great time splashing around in the mud.

It is, however, becoming something of a recurring theme at the moment. Getting rained on. Getting properly rained on, all day.

Which is why I found myself recalling Travis’ other big hit.

In lieu of something more insightful to say, I present you with a slice of classic Travis. It’ll all make sense. I promise.


Why does it always rain on me?

Fortunately, I’ve managed to dry everything out, ready for my next outing.


Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session reports, Uncategorised, 0 comments